British Museum blog

A glass fish from Begram

St John Simpson, Exhibition Curator

The exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World contains nineteen of the roughly 180 glass vessels found in the ancient Kushan storerooms at Begram. Many have very close parallels from the Roman world which also support a date of about 100 AD for the sealing of the rooms. These include mosaic glass and ribbed bowls, facet-cut beakers, a drinking horn, a jug decorated with gold foil, another that appears almost black, and a stunning series decorated with scenes painted in brightly coloured vitreous enamels. All functioned as tablewares but, whereas some are very common, others were probably relatively expensive.

However, some of the vessels found at Begram remain something of a mystery and these include as many as twenty-two which are in the shape of fish and other creatures. Three of these are shown in the exhibition. They were made by inflating the glass while it was hot and adding trails of glass to the body, and sometimes in a different colour, to create very distinctive fins. The composition of the glass resembles that of Roman glass made in Egypt yet there are no known parallels, either complete or fragmentary, for these vessels from the Roman world.

Some of the answers were provided at a conference held at the British Museum March 2011 when Dr David Whitehouse and Bull Gudenrath, both from the Corning Museum of Glass, spoke about the significance of the Begram glass and how the fish-shaped vessels were made. Bill drew gasps from the audience as first he showed a specially filmed video of him making a copy and then theatrically produced not just one, but two, copies at the front of the lecture theatre. He also showed that the techniques of making the glass fish were not particularly complicated although the way in which the fins were trailed were so distinctive that they could be regarded as the sign of a particular glass-worker.

The workshop where these were made remains unlocated and may never be found but David pointed out that this could be located somewhere in India as the first-century text known as The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea – a unique account of Red Sea and western Indian Ocean trade at this period – refers to the export not just of Roman glassware from Egypt but also raw glass. Much of this was probably turned into beads, bangles and inlays but the implication of the fish-shaped vessels from Begram is that some was fashioned into glass vessels by someone who had picked up the basics of glass-blowing and set up shop in a world where this was a complete novelty. It is not difficult to see how even the cheapest and most mass-produced types of Roman glassware were given exorbitant prices in places like India or Afghanistan in the first century but imagine the response when someone says they can make a vessel that looks like a fish, is unknown even in Rome and, to cap it all, rests perfectly on a table as its fins act as supports.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World is on at the British Museum until 17 July 2011.

Filed under: Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, Exhibitions

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. Brittany says:

    Thank you for posting that video. I had read the earlier blog and had glossed right over the picture of the glass fish not understanding its beauty and significance for the time. Watching it be made by Dr. David made it really come to life.

    Like

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 13,157 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Machiavelli was born on #onthisday in 1469. Here’s a portrait of the notorious writer.
#art #portrait #history #BritishMuseum Born #onthisday in 1360: the Yongle emperor of China. This beautiful blue-and-white moon flask was made during his reign
#China #art #porcelain #history Leonardo da Vinci died #onthisday in 1519. Here's his drawing of the Virgin and Child (& cat!) This drawing shows the seated Virgin holding the Christ Child on her right knee. The Child in turn grasps a cat which struggles to escape. The forms twist and turn within the space defined by the thin line of an arch. The moving figures form a triangle or pyramid, in a geometrical composition that is typical of Leonardo. At the top left of the sheet, the outline of a clock suggests that the sketch was a study for the Virgin and Child in a domestic setting.

This sheet shows how Leonardo rapidly developed his compositional ideas. First he drew the Virgin's head in the centre, tracing through the thin paper from a similar composition on the reverse of the sheet. Leonardo then placed the Virgin's head looking out to the left. Finally, he settled on the Virgin looking down to the right, to balance the heads of the Christ Child and the cat who face left. He then painted a thin brown wash over the final composition and strengthened his figures with thicker lines.

Leonardo made a number of drawings of this theme, but no painting of the Virgin and Child with Cat survives. Instead, the geometry and balance of the composition and sense of movement became characteristic of his High Renaissance style.
#art #history #drawing #Leonardo Born #onthisday in 1769: Duke of #Wellington Arthur Wellesley. He defeated #Napoleon at #Waterloo. In this satirical print from 1815 Wellington, with drawn sword, drives Napoleon before him, pointing out with extended forefinger the route his captive is to take.
Discover prints from the age of Napoleon and Wellington in our free exhibition #BonaparteAndTheBritish in Room 90.
#exhibition #free #BritishMuseum #propaganda #art May is named after the Greek goddess Maia. Here’s an allegorical print of the month by German artist Christian Bernhard Rode.
#May #months #art #history #print Happy #MayDay! Here’s Walter Crane’s 1874 design for a greeting card.
#May #art #drawing #history
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 13,157 other followers

%d bloggers like this: